NOTES FROM THE FOG
By Ben Marcus
266 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.
Ben Marcus’s new collection of stories takes a dark view of society, as well as of love, sex, marriage, parenting, employment, technology and human interaction of any kind. He’s an engrossing, poetically surreal writer. He’s often woundingly funny. Still, the pages turn more heavily here than they did in his last two books, “Leaving the Sea” (2014) and “The Flame Alphabet” (2012) — which, by the way, were not exactly Disney on Ice.
This is not to say that Marcus is wrong about people, or about the creepy “Black Mirror” episode that’s become our lives. There’s a small, raw moment in the beautifully unnerving opening story, “Cold Little Bird,” that distills the book’s cautionary howl. A 10-year-old named Jonah has made a chilling announcement to his parents: He no longer loves them or requires their oversight and, if they so much as hug him, he’ll report them to the school therapist for unwanted touching. Jonah’s father, Martin, is terrified — both for his boy and himself. Like virtually every couple in the book, he and his wife are post-passion and nearly post-verbal. “You’ll die, without affection,” Martin tells his son. “I’m not kidding. You will actually dry up and die.” “Notes From the Fog” is about people so alienated that they’re not so much living together as standing on adjacent ice floes.
There was a time when the words “dystopian” and “futuristic” were nearly synonyms, but even the most alarming events in Marcus’s genre-roaming book seem no more than five minutes from now. In “The Grow-Light Blues,” Carl Hirsch’s craven employers choose him to test a product that would replace meals with nutrient-infused rays from a laptop. The admiration and gratitude of his co-workers fade quickly and the light that’s “slowly roasting Carl’s face” transforms him into a monster to be pitied, shunned, fired. In “Precious Precious,” a cubicle worker named Ida Grieve is prescribed an insane-sounding antidepressant, called Rally, which is nearly impossible to swallow, then sits undigested in her stomach like a bomb waiting to go off: “Soon it had risen back into her mouth — it felt like a small insect crawling up her throat — and she had to take it out and butter it again.” All the while, Ida is visiting her aging parents as their minds decay. When her mother fears that she’s talking gibberish, she takes Ida’s hand and — in another tiny exchange that evokes a larger quest for connection — says urgently, “I made sense, didn’t I? … I want to. I so want to. You know that, right?”